There is an economic crisis that isn’t much talked about, but which is responsible for a downward spiral that none of us want to see continue.
That’s right. According to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, in the 1950’s about three percent of men between 25 and 54, which is still considered “prime” working age, were unemployed and not seeking employment. In the late 1960’s that had climbed to about five percent. In 2013 it was reported at 12 percent. And the last report placed it at 16 percent.
These aren’t just men who aren’t working. These are men who aren’t looking for traditional employment.
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
I’ve written about the disappearing working man before, but let’s take it a little deeper here. Why will fewer men in the workforce create a downward spiral in the economy? Men, when they have money, buy stuff. And men who aren’t working don’t buy as much stuff. Sure, if they’re getting unemployment or disability, or doing a little freelancing on the side, they’re buying necessary stuff. But they aren’t buying the stuff that fuels the economy.
So guess what happens next? Well, what usually happens to an economy when people don’t buy stuff? No matter what stimulus plan or artificial tweaking of interest rates is rolled out by the powers that be, eventually there isn’t enough money being spent to create new jobs to pay people who will spend money. That’s a gross over simplification, but let’s work with it.
In fact, we might even hypothesize that it’s the decline of men in the workplace that has impacted the economy more than it has been the economy driving men from the workplace. As reported in The Motley Fool, the number of men participating in the workforce has been dropping since shortly after World War II. But rather than have a chicken and egg discussion about cause and effect, let’s figure out how to make an omelette big enough to go around.
DOES AGE REALLY MATTER?
Considering “prime” working years to be between 25 and 54 is probably a bit outdated, 40 being the new 20 and all that. But let’s work with that. The interesting thing about that span right now is that about half of those years fall on the side of Gen X, and the other half on the side of the Millennials. Not to get too general, but there are some common values, traits, and behaviors that have been observed and attributed to those generations that give us clues to the causes and the solutions that are more relevant now.
Men are waiting longer to get married, even longer to have children, and a lot of them are staying in higher education longer or they’ve left college, had a job (or tried to get one) and returned to college. So for the Millennials, it’s a safe bet that a lot of them don’t have dependents, and may be using school loans or grants to squeak by. It’s also been noted that this generation doesn’t value “secure” employment the way their elders did. They are more likely to be comfortable freelancing, or doing temporary work, especially if they don’t yet have a family.
At the other end of the age range you’re likely to find men whose children have made it to adulthood, if not self-sufficiency. Considering the divorce rates in the United States, you’re also likely to find men who are single. Also impacting the men at this end of the spectrum are health care issues. Stress, physically demanding and repetitive tasks, and unhealthy work environments have taken their toll. For these men, disability is often a more viable option, even when it is less attractive, than the type of employment they would be eligible for.
IS IT REALLY HARDER ON MEN?
Other contributing factors often noted as impacting men’s opportunities in the workforce are automation and technological advances that have changed how things get made, fixed, and transported, the decreasing numbers of men (compared to women) attaining higher education degrees, and the disproportionate number of men (again, compared to women) who have a prison record, especially for violent or drug-related crimes. Add that to the fact that the two job sectors traditionally dominated by men; higher management and manufacturing, are in decline, while the job sectors showing the most growth demand education and skill sets that have not been highly rewarded in men.
Yes, we’re talking about societal norms again, which never hold true for everyone, but are still significant. If you look at this Bureau of Labor Statistics projection from 2013 of the 30 fastest-growing careers, you’ll notice that almost all of them would require advanced education or training, or a highly evolved ability to work with the public or teams, or both. Of the 30 I saw only one, a Gaming Surveillance Officer and Gaming Investigator job description, that wouldn’t demand some sophistication in interpersonal dynamics. And I could be wrong about that since I have only a vague idea of what a Gaming Surveillance Officer and Gaming Investigator really does.
But tact, graciousness, anger management, and diplomacy aren’t traditionally what we appreciate in little boys. What isn’t rewarded isn’t learned. Little girls, in my experience, are not only rewarded for mastering those traits, they are expected to do so. That puts women at an advantage in positions that require an understanding of nuances, or the ability to collaborate with teams. Empathy is another trait that has traditionally been associated with, and fostered in, females more than males. With more than half of the growing job sectors listed being in healthcare or spa services, empathy is a trait in high demand. Most of the remaining jobs listed, by the way, were in technology and required advanced training AND the ability to collaborate with others.
Men have also been raised with different expectations of themselves in respect to career, work, earnings, and security. Again,that’s “generally speaking,” but for those men whose sense of self esteem and worth is closely tied to the type of work they do and the income they generate, it’s a blow to be faced with a choice of unemployment or making lattes. And for those men who do have dependents, making lattes, or flipping burgers, doesn’t pay enough to to buy gas to get to work AND put food on the table.
So yes, in these respects, it is harder on men. And men, in greater and greater numbers, are giving up.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Let’s start with where we can start. This is a complex issue that has been building layers for over 50 years. We aren’t going to solve it in one article. But here are six areas where I believe we could put our focus and our resources to create significant impact.
#1 STOP WORSHIPING PIECES OF PAPER AND START CARING ABOUT EDUCATION
How about we lose the alphabet soup of letters following a name and start demonstrating the ability to internalize and apply what is learned? Whether it’s increased effectiveness of on-the-job training programs, more support for technical and specialty programs, or an overhaul of the higher education system, a degree hasn’t prepared most people for the reality of the job market for a very long time.
For years (lots of them, like since I was in my 20’s) employers have taken a lazy approach to hiring of using a college degree as a barrier to entry. That gives them fewer resumes to work through, and an “apples to apples” point of reference for comparing the perceived value of their candidates. They understand the language of “where did you go to school” and “what was your major/minor” and “what was your GPA.” They excuse this by saying that it also screens for a certain level of aptitude, ability to learn, discipline, and work ethic. But the truth is that the success factors of getting a degree are now quite different from the success factors that will make a man a success. We don’t need workers who have learned how to soak up information, massage it, and regurgitate it in an acceptable form. We don’t need workers who have learned that showing up is half the grade. We don’t need workers who have learned to game the system or play the political game.
We need to stop creating and hiring automatons, it might help them get the job, but it won’t make them effective or help them keep it.
More than that, employers who focus on the formal degrees are missing out on candidates who have a burning interest in one area — the area that is most relevant for the position — but did not have the fortitude or funds to get a “well-rounded” education. These might be the most passionate, loyal, capable, and creative employees they could ever hire, but they won’t see their resume because it doesn’t have enough initials on it.
#2 FOSTER ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Not just the traditional small business owner model, but the “I can be my own boss and make my way in the world” model. It’s impossible to tell from the Labor Bureau Statistics how many of the men who say they aren’t seeking a job are actually working freelance, or consulting, or lawn-mowing gigs. But we do know that the Millennials are more likely to be comfortable freelancing or doing contract work, and a large number of the Generation X males who are unemployed were previously in management or labor positions. It makes sense to hypothesize (and I’ve encountered a lot of men for whom this is true) that they may be putting their skills to use “off the record.”
If we accept that there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and for now let’s just work with that, then why not help these men create jobs instead of penalizing them for not being able to find one? Why not expand their opportunities to learn how to manage their own business, bid jobs, collect fees, set healthy life/work boundaries, attract clients, and even hire and train employees of their own?
I’ll admit to a bias, there is nothing I love so much as the entrepreneurial spirit and mindset, but it sounds reasonable to me.
#3 STOP BELIEVING REAL MEN AREN’T NICE
I know, most of you say you expect a “real man” to be nice, but you give yourselves away subtly and often. You post memes on Facebook that suggest that men are emotionally clueless or cold. Like this one (since removed by the poster, but you may have seen it making the rounds) depicting a suave gentleman saying “I tripped and fell into some feelings, but it’s OK, I brushed that shit right off.” Which is kind of funny until you realize that by laughing, and sharing, you’re doing it. You’re propagating the stereotype. And that isn’t funny at all.
We see the stereotype in the media, in sports, in entertainment (wait, I already said media) and of course, in every kind of social media and social interaction. Why do we make men fight so hard for the right to be empathetic, gentle, caring and emotionally intelligent human beings? Especially when, by perpetuating the stereotype of the he-man of few words and fewer feelings we’re making it exponentially difficult for men to allow themselves to master the subtleties of interpersonal dynamics that are vital to success in the most valued and growing job sectors.
#4 MEN HAVE PASTS — GET OVER IT (AND HELP THEM GET OVER IT TOO)
Two past experiences in particular make it even more difficult for a man to get a job. A prison record, or a service record. For those who have done their time and are hoping for a new page on which to write a different story, finding work can be next to impossible. You’ll find one of the most compelling and poignant stories about a man who not only turned that page, but is helping others do the same, in the book The Good Men Project. The chapter, “Blood-Spattered”, is written by Julio Medina, and you’ll have to get the book to read it, but that story alone is worth the $20 and you’ll also get a year’s worth of Premium Membership benefits — like not seeing ads on this post — and the other inspiring stories. (OK, that was a shameless and heartfelt plug. Ignore it if you want to, but I LOVE that book!)
You’d think veterans would have just the opposite experience, but that isn’t usually the case. Readjusting to civilian life can be the emotional equivalent of boot camp, and many vets are ill-prepared to manage it.
We could support both groups through programs to assist with reentry into every day life, specialized training, interview coaching, resume assistance, even transportation support. I have seen some structures springing up, Connections to Success here in St. Louis has a good program for parolees, but as a nation we can do better.
We can also do better at consciously fighting the stigma and stereotypes attached to these men and give them the opportunity to write on that fresh page.
#5 DISABLED DOESN’T HAVE TO MEAN UNABLE
Men in the workforce have been a disposable resource. Or, if not disposable, discardable. Our culture has expected men to sacrifice their bodies to earn their living. From the coal mines, to the front lines, from the first responders, to the line workers, we have an epidemic of disability. As a country, we haven’t encouraged recreation and recharging. We haven’t rewarded rejuvenation or rehabilitation. We’ve medicated and we’ve operated, and we’ve proved, one broken body after another, that our methods aren’t sustainable.
But many of these men can work, and they want to work, they just aren’t prepared or presently suited for any work that will pay them enough to give up their disability benefits, which is barely enough to live. We could change all that. We could change how we approach their medical treatment, and we could change how they are treated in the job market. We could increase their resources to retraining and to finding new ways to provide value and make a living. A man who has relied on his ability to abuse his body over and over again probably isn’t presently qualified to write code or process medical billing. But that doesn’t mean he could not and would not learn.
#6 CULTIVATE A CULTURE OF COLLABORATION AND SERVICE
I know it’s easy, when something seems in short supply, to think of everyone who wants what you want as “the competition.” But what if we started with the assumption that there are enough jobs to go around? Let’s work with that. Let’s say that the job shortage isn’t really a shortage, but a misallocation of talent and value. Then the problem would be helping more people be prepared to do the work that needs doing, right? If we see a demand in a job sector we’d band together to help people who are drawn to that work be ready to take it on.
So do a little thought experiment with me. What if the tech-savvy Millennial volunteered to teach basic computer skills to people for whom their lack of ability in that area was a barrier? What if the seasoned management professionals stepped in to teach Business 101 to the guy who’s decided to do lawn care for a living, or the freelance designer who’s a whiz at the computer but clueless about how to use his talent to make money? What if guys supported each other in shifting their understanding of what it means to “man up” so that it included being tender and tactful?
Want to improve the economy? I’ll let you take it from here. Just keep asking “what if.” It can’t hurt to ask. And it might help a lot. Yeah, let’s work with that.
Photo: Flickr/Prabowo Restuaji